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GDC09: Spending time with the cruise director of Azeroth


At GDC09, we got to talk with many people and listened to a variety of panels on all aspects of game design. But there was little doubt as to which panel attracted loads of attention -- the Jeff Kaplan panel on quest design in World of Warcraft.

Warcraft has come extremely far in terms of their UI design and quest implementation since the game launched back in 2004. Just between 2007 and 2009, Kaplan revealed that over 8,570,222,436 quests have been completed, while the daily average was 16,641,409. With those numbers in place, it's safe to say that World of Warcraft players are driven by their questing.

Kaplan's panel revealed a few tricks of the trade, as well as his beliefs regarding questing, so without further adieu let's get into the meat of his panel.

Gallery: GDC09: Spending time with the cruise director of Azeroth | 50 Photos

Directed Gameplay

One of Jeff's beginning points was the notion of directed gameplay -- the design of the game guides the player to a fun experience. Kaplan's points are all based around the idea of using directed gameplay as a tool that developers can use to create a fun experience for players.

Some of Jeff's examples from other games included the arrow in Bioshock that pointed players to their next objective, the quick instruction movie that appears in Team Fortress 2 when you've played a map you've never been on before, and Xbox 360 and World of Warcraft achievements.

The last (and perhaps most obvious) piece of directed gameplay are quests. Quests are easily recognizable pieces of story and gameplay that move players from one area to another in search of both challenges and quest resolution.

Questing and the User Interface

If you've spent any time in World of Warcraft, you're bound to understand that a good questing experience comes from a good UI. Creating an interface that caters to the player's needs without being intrusive or overbearing is a challenge, but Kaplan pointed out a few key things that can apply to any MMO.

The first is to guide players to the content in the world. While other games may do this through creative level design (such as Valve's Half-Life 2) Kaplan points to the infamous Warcraft "yellow exclamation point" as an easy to find marker that guides players to quest givers.

Kaplan made a note at this point that the yellow exclamation point may destroy the concept of exploration, but it's more important for the core gameplay that players know where to go and what to do than it is keeping exploration. "A player shouldn't be thrown into the world and expected to figure out what to do," Kaplan said.

The UI should also provide feedback that confirms the activity that the player is engaging in. Warcraft does this through the large reminders that appear when an objective is updated, such as counting that you're grabbing the right items for the quest, the quest tracker that sits on the right hand side of the screen, and the new tooltip update that will display your quest progress (coming in patch 3.1).

Tuning your game to be just right

Kaplan pointed out that the two mose saught rewards from questing were money and experience. Because of this, questing had to be constantly tuned to make sure it stayed ahead of other methods of gaining money and experience. If grinding one area constantly was better than questing, then something had gone wrong.

He also reminded all developers that tuning the content was extremely important, as without tuning the entire game experience could be destroyed. Questing dominates the experience of World of Warcraft because it was an intentional design decision. They wanted players to play their quests.

Play testing has an important role in this, as sometimes developers end up becoming too good at their own games and lose the ability to tune them properly. Make sure that the content you want to dominate the playing experience actually dominates the playing experience when someone completely new to the game steps into your world.

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